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Erik of the Phantom of the Opera and Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights as Byronic Heroes

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The Byronic Hero is a variant of the Romantic Hero who possesses an “expression which indicates a mixture of contempt and gloom”[1] and whose behaviour is unpredictable, “moodily taciturn and violently explosive.”[2] However, the Byronic Hero has a redeeming characteristic or quality that earns him the title ‘hero.’ Leslie Fielder defines the “hero-villain as indeed an invention of the gothic form” and thus links to the gothic as his “temptation, suffering, the beauty and terror of his bondage to evil are amongst its major themes.”[3] The Byronic hero originated from the archetypal eighteenth-century “man of feeling,” Lord Byron.[4] The protagonists, Heathcliff and Erik, both exercise a number of these traits in their physical appearances, manner and relationships with other characters as well as in the settings that are associated with them. Conversely, some may argue that they take on the role of a Gothic antagonist, particularly Erik, and therefore is presented as a Satanic Hero through his actions and appearance.

Whilst Brontë illustrated Heathcliff with the physical appearance of a Byronic Hero, Erik, one may argue, is given the appearance of a gothic antagonist by Leroux. Erik’s “strange, wan and fantastic face” is covered by a mask to hide “a face so pallid, so lugubrious and so ugly” covered in “terrible dead flesh.” The grotesque imagery of his description evokes a response of repulsion in the reader suited to that of an antagonist. The framed narrative of the story, however, suggests that Erik’s appearance as a villain may be extensively exaggerated by the narrator as was stereotypically done by theatre folk. Leroux repeatedly associates the words “death” and “skeleton” with Erik, emphasising his connection to hell, to death and to the supernatural, a classic feature of the Gothic protagonist and the Byronic Hero. Whilst Erik’s exterior is one of horror and death, Heathcliff’s physical appearance is typical of a Byronic Hero demonstrating a “mixture of contempt and gloom” as he is described as a “dark-skinned gypsy” with “deepened brows and eyes full of black fire.” Victorian readers would have rejected Heathcliff as a savage outcast due to their prejudices against those other than white Englishmen, choosing to view him as a ghoul and villain. Brontë portrays this in the novel through Nelly’s initial rejection of Heathcliff as a boy purely based on his “dirty, ragged” appearance and “half-civilised ferocity” that “lurked” in his brows. However, most modern audiences are no longer influenced by this nature of prejudice and therefore may sympathise with Heathcliff’s character instead of rejecting him. One may also argue that Heathcliff’s undying love for Cathy is his redeeming, humanising quality and therefore unlike Erik, he is a Byronic Hero rather than a villain. Nevertheless, to some extent it is Erik’s appearance that creates sympathy in the reader when his character recalls how his mother “would never … let [him] kiss her” and would run away and “throw [him his] mask.” His mother’s rejection of him allows us to psychologically understand his character’s actions which become evident in his characters admiration for Christine’s “prettiness” and “grace of manner.” Thus, his actions are no longer intrinsically evil but, have a pitying, sorrowful cause which presents him, like Heathcliff, as a brooding Byronic Hero.

Alternatively one may argue that through Erik’s manner and actions he is presented as a Satanic Hero for his actions are either “fantastic or disastrous.” The Satanic Hero, to some critics bears, no difference to the Byronic Hero, yet to others the Satanic Hero’s actions are far more evil. Erik’s murder of Joseph Buquet is an example of such an act and the image of him as a “snake … dragging himself about on the floor” and “hissing mad, incoherent words” alludes to the serpent in Paradise Lost, a classic Satanic Hero, and illustrates Erik’s feelings of torment and pain. However, in correspondence with the description of a Byronic Hero’s actions as “violently explosive”, Erik’s attributed actions are dramatised fantastically by Leroux using grotesque and pitiful imagery where he “twist[ed] his dead fingers into [Christine’s] hair.” The use of the word “dead” also implies that Erik is robbed of his feeling and senses and therefore is presented as an antagonist. Similarly, Heathcliff’s outbursts are associated with Cathy, his female pair, and reflect his character’s conflicting emotions towards her as “his violent nature was not prepared to endure the appearance of impertinence from one whom he seemed to hate.” Scholars, however, do sympathise with Heathcliff and ascertain that his “demonic behaviour … evolve[s] from his history of deprivation.”[5] Yet, neither Heathcliff nor Erik’s actions are described by omniscient narrators, but rather through the framed narratives of Nelly Dean and the Persian. Thus one would question their objectivity. Both characters, however, present an alter-ego of themselves where they adopt discreet, shadow-like and dignified personas. Stevie Davies[6] asserts that alter-ego is a theme in Wuthering Heights that contributes to Brontë’s “critique of so-called civilised behaviour” where other characters continue to reject Heathcliff even though his “manner was even dignified: quite divested of roughness.” Whereas Heathcliff’s character becomes “disinclined to society” and “increasingly otherworldly, lost in the land of ghosts”[7] after Cathy’s death, in the second half of the novel Erik’s becomes more passionate, his “emotion … so great”, conflicting with his shadow-like manner at the start of the novel where he “followed behind them” adopting a ghostly manner. Thus Leroux is enabled to introduce him as the “Opera ghost” and make evident his connection to the supernatural, a feature common in that of a gothic protagonist. It is, however, this later emotion displayed towards Christine’s character that some may argue is his redeeming quality for he sets her free and thus is a hero, although arguably his actions are presented as Satanic as he imprisoned her originally. However, it is possible that Leroux is adhering to the eighteenth century ideals of a Romantic Byronic Hero being “a man of feeling”, linking Erik to Lord Byron and the Romantic Movement. Observably, the structure of Heathcliff and Erik’s behaviour is mirrored. The reader is introduced to Heathcliff’s background story from the start of the novel, where their response may be pity or empathy. As the novel progresses and Heathcliff becomes quieter and harsher in his treatment towards the second generation, he becomes less of a hero and more of a villain. Leroux structures Phantom in the opposite way, starting with Erik’s character as an evil mystery and only introducing his pity creating history much later on in the narrative, thus Erik transfers from being a gothic antagonist to being presented as a Byronic Hero towards the denouement.

The relationships between the protagonists and the female characters have a significant impact on the reader’s reception of them as to whether they are Byronic Heroes who earn “the reader’s sympathies.”[8] Brontë uses the character pairing of Heathcliff and Cathy to illustrate a relationship which “reveals a strong desire for the dissolution of the self,” where Catherine declares, “I am Heathcliff” and Heathcliff asserts that Catherine is “his soul, his life.”[9] This implies that without her he has no soul and no life and suggests that after her death, Heathcliff will become soulless and lifeless and an antagonist without a moral conscience – a villain. This may also be why Heathcliff has to die as he has no life without her. With both characters, it is the relationship between them and their paired character that sparks their sporadic emotions. Some argue that Brontë does this in order to maintain her critique of society during Victorian times as the “anomalous love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff discharges a rebellious energy against norms and laws”[10] and thus Catherine and Heathcliff have to be separated, which Brontë does through Catherine’s death as a punishment for their transgressions. Critics of Brontë observe that she tends to “prefer the more problematic Byronic hero-villains” as they threaten the “fiercely defended independence” of her heroines, their soul mates.”[11] Leroux too uses Erik’s character to restrict the damsel in distress’s independence naming her, “Christine the victim,” and forbidding her to marry. Christine’s character thus becomes the damsel in distress and as Erik is restricting her freedom, Leroux presents him as the villain, whom the hero needs to defeat. Alternately, Heathcliff’s character has the potential to restrict Cathy’s independence should they marry, but they do not and therefore he remains a Byronic Hero.

Brontë uses structures with gothic elements to “mirror states of psychological stress and release in the characters.”[12] The same technique is used by Leroux. The landscape in Wuthering Heights is described as “artfully personified.” This may be due to Brontë’s use of contrasting pairs between her settings, which inwardly reveal more about the characters that are associated with them. Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange are associated with opposing characters, Heathcliff and Edgar Linton. Wuthering Heights from the beginning of the narrative is given a dark aura, although it is ambiguous whether this is because Heathcliff’s character is associated with it, or whether it is intrinsically so and thus Heathcliff’s character becomes more otherworldly. What is evident is that Brontë uses pathetic fallacy of the “deeply set” narrow windows, the “stormy weather” and the gothic elements of the buildings combined with the repetition of ‘H’ names of the “heights characters”, like Hindley, Hareton, Heathcliff, which imply that they are “reflections of the others” to “increase the aura of strangeness” and ambiguity surrounding Heathcliff’s character which confirm his presentation as a Byronic Hero.[13] Alternatively, the romantic imagery in the opera house is associated with Erik. The theatre is associated with the sublime and thus this is where the phantom resides for, as previously noted, his behaviour and manner embraces extreme passionate emotions. As with Heathcliff, it is ambiguous as to whether it is Erik who enhances this sublimation in the theatre or vice versa. Leroux, too, exploits the gothic features of Erik’s character by associating him with revenant settings such as that of the graveyard which gives a “glimpse of life among the dead … for death was all around him.” Leroux heightens this link by repeatedly alluding to the Resurrection of Lazarus[14], emphasising the possibility of the return of the dead and therefore increasing the reader’s suspicions of Erik’s character and where he came from, allowing Leroux to explain his origins later in the novel. Whereas Erik’s character resides in the cellars, a setting associated with villains (and the fact that it is below ground links it to Satan), and hides from society’s judgement and hatred, Wuthering Heights is a symbol of strength and endurance, a reflection of Heathcliff’s character as a hero.

Ultimately, Erik and Heathcliff are Romantic heroes who, through their appearances and reactions to these appearances, are presented as Byronic Heroes. Sympathy is a significant response to Byronic Heroes and as modern readers feel sympathy towards their exclusion from society, both characters are responded to as Byronic Heroes. The settings that are linked to them are dark, gothic and romantic settings which implant an aura of mystery in them and therefore earn them the title of hero-villains as the setting earns them the ‘villain’ title. However, modern readers and contemporaries who embraced the Enlightenment period would strive to find reason and logic behind the fantastical, sublime and revenant settings and therefore the aura of strangeness and mystery is lost. Yet, it is in terms of manner where they begin to differ. Their manners mirror each other’s in terms of structure, however, one may argue that Leroux instils in Erik a much harsher behaviour, particularly in his character’s relationship with Christine, and thus he is labelled as a murderer. Therefore Erik cannot be a Byronic Hero, but to a larger extent is a Satanic Hero, whose actions are iniquitous, but whose situation earns him pity. Therefore, in agreement with many critics, Heathcliff is presented entirely as a Byronic Hero, whereas Erik, to a vast extent, is presented as a Satanic Hero.

Resources

David Punter and Glennis Byron, The Gothic. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).

Heather Glen (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to: The Brontës. (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Marie Mulvey-Roberts (Editor), The Handbook of the Gothic. 2nd Edition.(Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights. (USA: Books Inc., 1936.)

Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera. (London: HarperPress, 2011)

Wasowski, Richard P. CliffsNotes on Wuthering Heights. Date Accessed: 1 November 2013. (www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/w/wuthering-heights/wuthering-heights-at-a-glance)

[1] David Punter and Glennis Byron, The Gothic. [2] Marie Mulvey-Roberts (ed.), The Handbook of the Gothic. 2nd Edition. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] Marie-Mulvey-Roberts (ed.) The Handbook of the Gothic. 2nd Edition. [6] Heather Glen (ed.) The Cambridge Edition to: The Brontës. [7] David Punter and Glennis Byron, The Gothic. [8] Heather Glen (ed.) The Cambridge Edition to: The Brontës. [9] David Punter and Glennis Byron, The Gothic. [10] Stevie Davis, The Cambridge Companion to: The Brontës. [11] David Punter and Glennis Byron, The Gothic. [12] Marie Mulvey-Roberts (ed.), The Handbook of the Gothic. 2nd Edition. [13] Heather Glen (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to: The Brontës. [14] Initially a story from the Bible, The Raising of Lazarus. It is unsure of what composition Leroux was referring to, although it is most commonly accepted that he is referring to the Resurrection of Lazarus (Die Auferweckung des Lazarus) by Carl Loewe.

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